Church architecture must express meaning

  • February 12, 2009
{mosimage} TORONTO - Christian architecture has to do more than amaze or comfort the people who walk into churches. A church has to mean something, says architect Roberto Chiotti.

Chiotti is best known for his design of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin , a groundbreaking Catholic church in north Toronto that reinterprets the tradition of church architecture to make it work with, rather than against, nature. St. Gabriel’s is the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the Canada Green Building Council certified church in Canada and stands as a physical embodiment of the theology of Passionist Father Thomas Berry.

A principal in Larkin Architects , Chiotti is currently at work redesigning the historic buildings at the corner of Queen’s Park Circle and Wellesley Street for use by the Jesuits of Regis College .

“It’s time to reinvest meaning and content into our architecture,” Chiotti told a University of St. Michael’s College audience in Toronto Feb. 3.

Chiotti derides what he calls the “ego driven” architecture of some recent public buildings in Toronto, including the Michael Lee Chin Crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum . Such architecture is “obsessed with superficial aspects of form and style,” he said.

Unlike the random collision of geometric shapes and historical styles typical of postmodern architecture, church architecture has a story to tell, according to Chiotti.

“The building in and of itself is a form of catechesis,” he said.

When Chiotti filled St. Gabriel’s with natural light, a view of a self-sustaining garden and a wall of plant life to filter the air, he was carrying on the same tradition of teaching in stone and glass that inspired architects of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. All that’s changed is the catechism lesson.

This time the lesson is about God’s creation and our place in it.

“Instead of fighting nature, let’s start learning from nature,” Chiotti said. “Our attempts to defeat nature result in natural disaster.”

In addition to his training in architecture, Chiotti studied theology at the Elliott Allen Institute of Theology and Ecology at the University of St. Michael’s College.

Theologically and architecturally, Chiotti has got it right, according to church architecture consultant William Kervin.

“The primary purpose of liturgical architecture is to serve the function of the liturgy,” said Kervin. “I think what we’re moving into now is a context in which the function of the liturgy is increasingly under pressure to be integrated into our relationship with the environment. It’s not so much a sanctuary of sacred space separate from the surrounding world, as it has been conceived previously.”

Even though the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of Constantinople have all made significant commitments to the environment, that doesn’t mean environmentally conscious architecture is going to meet immediate popular approval from people in the pews.

“Change is always going to meet strong reactions,” said Kervin, who teaches public worship and church architecture at Emmanuel College in the Toronto School of Theology .

While Christians today may naturally gravitate to traditional church structures with steeples, stained glass, vaulted ceilings, etc., most also would reject a “decadent or opulent place in the face of contemporary concerns about the environment,” he said.

“There’s a tightrope to be walked between the classic symbols and stories of the faith — however they are embodied in stone or stained glass — and allowing them to speak meaningfully to a contemporary context,” he said.

“Religion has a relevance in addressing the ecological crisis,” Chiotti said. “Revelation comes to us not just in Scripture but also in creation.”

It isn’t just religion that has something to say about the environment. All architecture has to change to fit the new environmental reality, said Chiotti.

“The entire Kyoto protocol could be achieved just within our profession alone,” he said.

Buildings use 40 per cent of the energy, 25 per cent of the water and 25 per cent of the wood that humans consume. An architecture of meaning would have to reduce our demands on the Earth, Chiotti said.

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